Poetry Reading Review: Thomas Lux

Photo credit: The Poetry Foundation

Photo credit: The Poetry Foundation

I went to see Thomas Lux read the other night at Smith College.  I haven’t read much Lux before and I don’t know much about him, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I figured it’s the last night of summer and the chill of fall is in the air, so why not go to a poetry reading?  It was a whim, so I was surprised to discover a voice I’m eager to explore and learn from.  I learned something, too, about how poems actually unfold as they’re being spoken—I experienced them in a physical, concrete way I seldom do at readings.  It was enough to keep my hands warm in the chilly air on the walk across campus back to the car.

It had something to do with the way Lux read.  He was focused deeply on the poems, the experience of them.  I witnessed a poet not reciting poems, but living them.  They had flesh and breath.  He read them slowly and naturally, with a certain amount of emphasis for flavor, but without affectation.  He held the book with his right hand, his left hand often moving freely with the sound and action of the poems.  It gave the poems body.  Sometimes by accident he’d knock the microphone—no matter, it only underscored how ridiculous and unnecessary microphones are.

Lux read exclusively from his forthcoming (2016) collection, To the Left of Time, which contains poems that are mostly odes, he said.  In the poems there was hay dust flying, and all the little cuts that get your arms when you’re haying and which sting suddenly hours later when washing up. There were swords settling at the bottom of river beds and kids venturing out onto untested ice.  There were those pigeon-holing high school aptitude tests and the summer job painting fire hydrants red, the summer everyone asked about your bloodstained clothes.  What struck me is that Lux is in perfect control–of voice and pacing, syntax and image.  There’s nothing extraneous, nothing to distract.  Every word lands just right.  A spare directness is elegantly braided with more complex mysteries.

I’m looking forward to the new collection, and I look forward to becoming acquainted with Lux’s oeuvre.  Here’s a brief introduction to Lux and his work.  Here’s a poem he read at Smith from the forthcoming book: “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming.”  And here’s “Empty Pitchforks” from New and Selected Poems 1975-1995.

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel

When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s never enough to simply describe a scene; one must inhabit it.  And to inhabit a scene is to be there as a living being who is a creature in and of time, not removed from time, not observing from the cool distance of timelessness.


The Lacemaker by Vermeer

It’s true, however, that a picture is time stopped, a moment removed from all the other moments flowing before and, especially, after it.  The way scientists remove a core sample from the earth in order to run tests in the lab, the painter or photographer has taken a core sample of time, the better to meditate on a particular moment.  In so doing, one hope is that from the particular we may experience some larger truth.

An engaged viewer returns a picture to time’s animation.  The poet who uses a work of art as a starting point is doing just this.  And what it means is the picture is allowed to live, allowed all the gifts of time: action and transformation chief among them.  Shadows lengthen.  Icarus disappears into the sea without a trace, and the water’s surface is seamless again.  The girl making lace feels a sudden rush of rebellion in her fingers.

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Summer Reading

Summer Dreams by S.A. Vinogradov

It’s been good reading this summer.  Here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed spending time with:

This World by Teddy Macker

Immortal Medusa by Barbara Louise Ungar

Small Songs of Pain by Patricia Fargnoli

The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward

Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet by Peter Gelpi

The Measure of Her Powers by M.F.K. Fisher

The Best Food Writing 2014 by Holly Hughes, editor

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme

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Charles Wright: Things to Think About

Charles Wright, "11 Things to Think About"

Charles Wright, “11 Things to Think About”

Here’s a beat-up copy of a handout America’s new Poet Laureate Charles Wright gave a class over twenty years ago.  (Handout provided by one of Wright’s former students, Amy Woolard, via Twitter.)


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Poetry Resources

Learn, Learn, Learn! by Evgeniy Katsman

Learn, Learn, Learn! by Evgeniy Katsman

I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut).  Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.

Starting Out:

“Advice for Beginning Poets” from Wesley McNair’s Mapping the Heart: Reflections on    Place and Poetry

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

Creating Poetry by John Drury

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

Any Time:

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Claims for Poetry, Donald Hall, ed.

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Friebert et al., eds.

The Art of series by Graywolf Press:      

     The Art of Description by Mark Doty      

     The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach    

     The Art of Attention by Donald Revell      

     The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Michael Thuene, ed.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly


The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twichell, eds.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (exercises for artists in all genres)

General Writing Advice:

Writing With Power, Peter Elbow

If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland

Poetry Anthologies, etc.:

The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman, ed.

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (two volumes), Jahan              Ramazani et al., eds.

The Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics


Poetry Daily

Verse Daily

www.poets.org (Academy of American Poets)


As always, the best education for a poet at any level is to consume poetry widely – in journals, books, online, and at readings.  To write poetry, one must also read and listen to it.

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Capture of Kazan by Nikolai Roerich

Capture of Kazan by Nikolai Roerich

A strategy I’ve found helpful when working with a recalcitrant poem at any stage is to overwrite/underwrite. The idea is this: take the problem poem and pump up the volume—write in all the little details you left out because you didn’t think they were relevant, add plenty of descriptors, add the action that gets us from point A to point B that your better angels whispered to leave out, get more associations and images in there, go all out. Elaborate. Complicate. Give the poem a hefty dose of growth hormone. You can either take the frame of the existing poem and add to it, or start from scratch and just take the original idea and go baroque.

When you’re as done as you’re going to be, step back and take a look. It’ll seem unwieldy at first, but try to find the hotspots, the power points, the places of essential energy. Then—surprise—reduce the whole thing to a gesture drawing. Try to capture in as few strokes as possible the thing you need to say. Compress until your poem releases the essential oil contained in its petals.

In this process of elaborate and compress, best carried out over several sessions, you’ll learn something important about the poem you were trying to write. Now use that new knowledge, that new feeling, to write the poem as it was meant to be, neither overdone nor underdone, but this time, just right.

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The Troubled Speaker

Image: Mikolajus Ciurlionis

I keep coming back to a statement by Robert Bly that “every poem has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker” (Turkish Pears in August).  The notion of a troubled speaker captured my attention right away.  It gets at two very essential questions about poetry:  for the poet, why one is writing a poem in the first place, and for the reader, why one should even care.

“Troubled speaker” means someone bothered by something, trying to work something out.  And all of us are daily engaged in working things out – it’s what makes us human.  But it is the artist’s job to give voice to this process, to acknowledge the uneasiness, the doubt, the fear, the awe, the surprise, the difficulty, the dizziness, the contradiction that is at the heart of the human experience.

It’s a useful question to ask of any poem:  what’s bothering the poem’s speaker?  To pinpoint the unease is one way of unlocking a poem.  Here’s “The Broken Sandal,” a short poem by Denise Levertov.

In this poem, the speaker feels suddenly disoriented.  She is faced with a decision, one she feels ill-equipped to make – either continue moving, which may involve pain, or come to a standstill.  Either way, the unforeseen turn of events disturbs the speaker and raises questions about her present and her future.  There must have been something she was moving toward, she feels, and she wants to work out whether or not it is worth suffering for.

A friend of mine, the poet MRB Chelko, once told me she thinks of poems as questions.  This insight is similar to Bly’s.  I have found it very helpful to conceive of poems this way — as a seeking after, as a search.  And I am coming to learn that a poem without this energy goes nowhere.

More poems that feature a troubled speaker:

To the Snake,” Denise Levertov

Prayer,” MRB Chelko

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Link: Call for Submissions (CLOSED)

Common bumble bee

I’d like to share a call for submissions to an upcoming literary anthology about bees titled Winged.  Looks like an exciting project, and proceeds will benefit The Xerxes Society and other organizations working to save the honey bee and other native pollinators. Here’s a link with more details and submission guidelines: http://wingedbook.com

Winged: New Writing on Bees | A literary anthology

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Notebook Excerpts

fat spiral

I have a growing desire to write in three dimensions, to sculpt text rather than paint it.  To use words as mixed media.  More shadow and space where mystery can rush in.  To manipulate poetry, to construct it (not so much a poem as a construction) rather than simply (hear the bland intonation) write it.


The question of how to get shorter line breaks.  I don’t want them to seem unnatural.  It’s a frame of mind.  See the line breaks of tanka.  See the slowing-downness.  Not slowness, necessarily, but the process of slowing.  Noticing.  Chewing on something.  Setting a thought apart — not letting the mind race, but letting it settle.  In some ways is it the opposite of a prose poem, which lets the lines sprawl so luxuriously till line breaks cease to be?  There can often be “another ordinary day” feel to prose poems.  Then there’s the setting off from the rest, the highlighting, the calling attention to, the deliberateness, that comes with line breaks, especially shorter lines.  Something arranged, or composed, like a collection of stones on a shelf.  That’s the conceptual art of it.  (The artist Joseph Beuys always left plenty of space.)


Saw Adelia Prado read last night.  She was absolutely connected to the words, invested in them, not cavalier about them like some poets can seem when they read.  She read slowly, clearly, and forcefully.

She stopped once to catch her breath from sadness.  She wept.  She placed a fist over her heart.  She raised her palm in the air.  That old auditorium with periodic tables of the elements suspended from the ceiling was transformed.

“I don’t write with my head or my heart,” she said, “but with my gut.”

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The Finishing Line


How, as a reader, do you know when a poem is over?  That’s easy – you run out of lines to read.  The question gets tricky, however, when we talk about the poet:  it’s not as easy as saying that the writer knows a poem is over when she runs out of lines to write.  It’s a fascinating question, though, and one that every poet has to grapple with on an almost daily basis.

In a recent interview in the American Poetry Review, John Ashbery asserts that a “timer goes off” when the poem he’s working on is done, and he’s found that it’s futile to keep writing after that figurative ding!.  Reading that, I get this weird and wonderful image of a poem as a mass of yeasty dough that you’ve got to knead and let ferment and then shape into a loaf and toss in the oven – after all that work the cook can only wait for the bread to be done in its own time, and there’s that perfect moment of golden-brownness and hollow thump when you rap it’s underside with your knuckles.

There are plenty of other ways of looking at how a poem runs its course.  In grad school I had a professor say that just when you think it’s done, take one more step.  Push yourself a little bit further over the threshold you constructed, open the door, and walk through.  You might be surprised at what you find.  To this wisdom I’ve added the notion that what a particular poem might need is the very opposite move — for the writer to take a step back, to turn away from that door, to leave something unsaid.

Maybe moving a poem toward its ending is like rock climbing: finding the right foothold.  Do I grab hold of this outcrop here, put my toe in that crack?  Is it wise to try and reach that ledge over there, or should I shoot for that crevice instead?  It’s a game of finesse.  One move may be safe and one may be more risky.  You have to keep weighing alternatives again and again without becoming paralyzed by analysis, but it’s what gets you to the summit.

Taking the poem in a surprising direction, the volta, or turn, usually associated with the sonnet, has the capacity to open, widen, or even detonate a poem as it draws to a close.  That’s exciting.  I’d like to see contemporary free verse engage more in this kind of vigorous movement.  It’s healthy and it gets the blood flowing.

I look at poems I love by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Yannis Ritsos, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, and others, and part of what I love about each one is that the ending leaves me feeling like I have witnessed something true, and it leaves me exhilarated or unsettled or grateful, but never indifferent.  It’s true that I want the entire poem to make me feel, and the best poems do, but there is something that a poem’s ending can accomplish which makes the finishing line crucial to the success of the whole.  O’Hara suddenly pleads with his father to “forgive the roses and me” (“To My Dead Father”) in the final line of his poem, and it is a complication of what has come before instead of a closure, but it is the perfect ending.

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